What is delirium?

For elderly adults who have dementia, feeling confused may be expected. But when confusion comes on suddenly or if the senior becomes difficult to arouse, this could be a condition called “delirium.” This type of sudden confusion may be the first sign that the person has another illness and needs medical help right away.

One myth we often hear about aging is that it’s not unusual to be confused when you’re old. It’s true that we can expect many changes as part of normal aging. But a sudden change in cognitive function — or the way we think and process information — is not one of them.
Even if there has simply been a change in the elder’s thinking or behavior, most caregivers and family members will know that something is not right. It’s important to contact a doctor as soon as possible so that he or she can find the cause of the delirium and treat the underlying problem.

When is sudden confusion an emergency?

If you notice that an elderly adult has become suddenly confused or is not acting like him/herself, you need to get help.

Signs to watch for include:

  • An inability to focus attention or make eye contact.
  • Cannot be fully waken.
  • Mumbling or speech that doesn’t make sense.
  • Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there.
  • Agitation without any obvious cause.

Behavior like this may be the first sign of a medical emergency called sudden confusion or delirium.

  • Elderly adults who have any of these symptoms should see their primary care doctor right away.
  • If you notice any of these symptoms in a hospital setting, tell a staff member immediately.

It’s important to remember that sudden confusion is different than other common changes in thinking that can happen as we age, such as dementia. With dementia, confusion happens slowly over time. With sudden confusion that needs medical treatment, the older adult’s thinking abilities change quickly, often without warning.

Sudden confusion in seniors can be very scary — both for the person who experiences it and the loved ones who witness it. Get medical help as soon as possible, then focus on keeping the older adult safe while they are confused.

People with sudden confusion may focus inward, showing a lack of interest in or attention to the things around them. Or they may become restless and agitated, reacting strongly to things they see, hear, or feel. It is important to remember that feeling confused can be frightening. Do your best to remain calm as you try to figure out the cause of their distress.

Some people with sudden confusion may punch, yell, kick, or act aggressively. That’s why it’s important to focus on keeping the confused person safe until you find out what’s causing their distress. If possible, try to help them walk or change position since this may help ease discomfort.

You may try to gently reorient the person to reality, but remember that their confusion may cause them to see reality in a different way. It will help comfort them to meet them in their world until the confusion is resolved.

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